Consider adapting Danish policy choices for U.S.? Centrists and conservatives say 'yes'
Bryan Caplan agreed. “I think societies like that are bad,” he said. “I think societies where people focus solely on individual achievement and judge themselves based on what they’ve accomplished, not what their societies have accomplished, are better societies. So, great, your society has done this and this, but what have you done?”
When asked whether he believes a society should ever take responsibility for those members who are not able to achieve individual success, Caplan said, “I see a lot of value in pushing yourself to your limits and making the best of what you’ve got.” In follow-up emails, Remapping Debate asked Caplan why it would not be possible for an individual to take pride in both individual and societal accomplishments, but Caplan did not respond.
Sumner agreed that there may be a tradeoff between collectivism and individualism, but added that there are indisputable benefits to having a more public-spirited, collectivist society. For example, he said, collectivist societies enjoy far less social strife, are able to maintain broad public support for the high tax rates that finance beneficial social programs, and are more likely to work towards long-term goals, such as large infrastructure projects.
In Denmark’s case, Sumner also credited the system of proportional electoral representation, unicameral legislature, and the parliamentary system of governance as reinforcing social trust, because they allow fewer opportunities for a minority of elected officials to impede the will of the majority.
“That pretty quickly makes citizens disenchanted with the government,” he said. “Even when I disagree with the reforms that are proposed in Washington, I don’t like the fact that they can be blocked by a minority representing an even smaller minority of voters.”
While he acknowledged that changing the electoral system would be a formidable challenge, Sumner did say that there were certain lessons that American policy makers could learn from Denmark.
“It is not legislatively difficult to abolish the filibuster,” he said.
Though they disagreed about the virtues of specific policy choices, every expert interviewed for this article agreed that they warranted spirited public discussion.
Kierkegaard said that American policy makers seem less and less inclined to explore options that require them to think outside of their usual frame of reference. “The truth is that Denmark and a lot of other countries are dealing with exactly the same challenges — an aging population, environmental issues, competition from emerging economies — that we are,” he said. “There has never been a better time for U.S. policy makers to look abroad for solutions. We still have this notion of American exceptionalism.”
Remapping Debate repeatedly contacted the offices of several members of Congress from both parties and of various ideological orientations to ask them what lessons they believed could be learned from Denmark’s success. Only one — Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland and a member of the Tea Party Caucus — responded, saying that his duties “preclude him from providing informed comments.”
Kierkegaard emphasized that there are several policy debates currently underway in the United States that could greatly benefit if participants stopped to study the responses of other countries to the issues they are seeking to address. In particular, he said, Danish policy choices are especially relevant to the ongoing discussions over tax revenues and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), the federal program that provides benefits and retraining to workers who have suffered from the effects of increased imports, or whose employers have relocated to other countries. TAA was temporarily expanded in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus package, and the Senate voted last month to extend the expanded version of the legislation, while many House Republicans have balked.
But there is no discussion, even among Democrats, about extending the system of worker training still further, as Denmark has successfully done, Kierkegaard said.
“I attribute that [unwillingness] almost completely to ideological blinders,” he said. “It’s hard for me to come up with an empirically-based explanation of why you would not want to have something like that, since it’s been proven to work quite well in other countries.”
When asked why American policy makers were so resistant to looking outside the United States for examples of successful policies from abroad, the most common response among those interviewed for this article was that politicians were too consumed with “ideology.”
“Political discussion has become so polarized that we have become blind to anything that falls outside of a party line,” Kierkegaard said.
Brogan of the National Small Business Association said that even among the Association’s membership, ideology played a part in determining their advocacy positions. “Many of them are uncomfortable with anything outside of a pure free-market ideology,” she said, “even if it seems quite practical.”
Mitchell agreed, and added that he often tries to use examples from other countries to support his recommendations, usually to no avail.
“It’s a challenge because a lot of politicians — and this is a general point that’s applied to Republicans and Democrats equally — they don’t care that much about policy,” he said. “Most politicians are concerned with running races and raising money and accumulating power, and every once in a while they talk about policy because they remember that that’s what the public thinks their job is.”